When Education Standards Stereotype, Marginalize, and Eliminate Indigenous Peoples

Censorship, Diversity, Education, School Libraries

As schools across the United States begin the 2021-2022 school year, public and school librarians should become familiar with their particular state’s education standards in various subject areas. In part, this is a best practice in order to collaborate more easily with classroom teachers and as an effective way to advocate for library programs in schools. But there’s also a more pressing reason: state education standards can reflect current political attempts to prevent building diversity awareness and to promote a distorted sense of “patriotism” by only allowing teachers to emphasize positive interpretations of United States history or incorrect information about the LGBTQ+ community, to provide two examples.

Because of increased standardized testing, many classroom teachers only include curriculum that is explicitly mentioned in state education standards. For obvious reasons, this can lead to censorship and quickly reveals the dangers of oversimplifying, stereotyping, marginalizing, and even eliminating groups of people and their histories in an effort to teach a lot of history quickly (yet broadly) and to avoid any potential controversy.

I’ve previously written on this topic related to South Carolina US History standards and comprehensive health education laws, but by no means is this issue particular to one state or region.

South Dakota made headlines after its state Department of Education altered work completed by committees of educators, parents, representatives, and others to update its Social Studies standards, specifically by taking out references to the Oceti Sakowin. In the article linked above, South Dakota Governor Republican Kristi Noem is quoted as stating she supports an “‘honest, patriotic education that cultivates in our children a profound love for our country,’” “that the U.S. has ‘failed to educate generations of children about what makes America unique,’ and that the ‘left’ is ‘indoctrinating students.’”

If supporting an “honest, patriotic” education coincides with erasing the history, impact, indeed even the existence, of a region’s own indigenous people from state education standards, then that state is asking its teachers to offer a distorted and censored version of history to students.

Some who do not view this move as problematic point out that the South Dakota Education Association has previously adopted the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings & Standards. However, teachers are not required to utilize these standards, so the formal adoption by the South Dakota Department of Education would be more foundational to ensuring a diverse, multicultural, and representative educational experience. 

This article from the Argus Leader lists in detail which standards were cut. One example:

“Standards for fourth grade history changed entirely in one section, from explaining how the Oceti Sakowin was affected by ‘westward expansion, the creation of the reservation system, and the U.S. assimilation policies and programs,’ to describing the ‘influences of various cultures on South Dakota communities.’”

Public and school librarians should educate themselves on these current events and stay abreast of changes to state standards so libraries may provide teachers and students with access to reliable and authentic information to fill in the gaps made by politicians. Librarians should also encourage limited use of textbooks which may also provide oversimplifications, stereotypes, and misinformation about indigenous peoples. 

Another area of consideration for librarians is the sequencing of courses. In South Dakota according to the new standards, 5th grade students learn about the history of its indigenous peoples, but they do not build upon that knowledge again until 8th grade. According to the document, 5th graders are expected to thoroughly understand “interactions between Europeans and Indigenous Native Americans” and “the influential patriots involved in the creation of the United States as an independent country” (among others). Editorializing the use of the word “patriotic” and euphemizing these “interactions” already interprets for teachers how this history should be presented to students.

Those who view this concern as alarmist may be reminded of the 600 unmarked graves which were discovered this summer at a former residential school for indigenous children, according to this Associated Press report.

Do All Indians Live in Tipis?

This summer, as part of the National Association for Media Literacy Education’s virtual conference, Ami Temarantz, Lead Cultural Interpreter for the National Museum of the American Indian, presented a session titled “Powerful Images, Powerful Words: American Indian Stereotypes in Education and Popular Culture.” Librarians can help classroom teachers plan media literacy lessons focused on how indigenous people have been represented in school curriculum and popular culture throughout the past. For example, have students explore terminology and descriptions used, and learn which are appropriate. Temarantz suggests students examine paintings and other artistic depictions of “American origin myths” and discuss how art can influence historical interpretations. Look at wording used to describe indigenous peoples in the Declaration of Independence and Andrew Jackson’s speech on Indian removal in 1830. Provide students with opportunities to learn about the continued contribution of indigenous peoples instead of relegating them to the past only. For example, use the award-winning book We Are Water Protectors. Read “Manifesting Destiny: Re/presentations of Indigenous Peoples in K–12 U.S. History Standards” for more information. Explore the Native Knowledge 360 website for more resources.

Of course it is true that teachers simply cannot cover everything; however, it is a problem of overt censorship when state education agencies do not take the advice of professionals serving on committees and egregiously misrepresent communities in an unjust manner in order to promote a particular view of history. Librarians are uniquely positioned to help classroom teachers provide more equitable, just, and accurate learning opportunities and information to students.

One thought on “When Education Standards Stereotype, Marginalize, and Eliminate Indigenous Peoples

  • Anton Treuer’s Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians but Were Afraid to Ask (Levine Querido, 2021) is another wonderful resource that should be in all school and public libraries. Treuer is Ojibwe, but mentions viewpoints of other tribes in his far-ranging questions and answers. The book is very readable even in its Q&A format.

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